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Commentary: What's Really Behind House Bill 387, Which Would Put Draconian Limits On Early Voting?

Jim O'Bryan drops off his election ballot in the drop box at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Cleveland.
Tony Dejak
Associated Press
Jim O'Bryan drops off his election ballot in the drop box at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Cleveland.

We are sitting here wondering if the Republican majority in the Ohio House is trying to pull off an elaborate bait-and-switch game in order to scale back early voting in Ohio.

There are currently two Republican bills dealing with ballot access in front of the Republican-controlled Ohio House.

One is House Bill 294, sponsored by two Republican state representatives, Bill Seitz of Green Township and Sharon A. Ray of Wadsworth in Medina County.

HB 294 has Ohio Democrats stirred up, believing it is an attack on the early voting system that has flourished here for the past 16 years.

It would create an online absentee ballot request system that requires two forms of identification. And it would allow secure ballot drop boxes only at county boards of elections – up to three on the property of each board of elections – but only for 10 days prior to the election. Right now, they are available during the 28-day early voting period.

And it also says absentee ballot requests must be received by election boards 10 days before the election, instead of the three days under current law.

Both of those provisions have Ohio Democrats howling, as they did in May at a contentious hearing on the bill before the House Government Oversight Committee.

But even Ohio Democrats will admit that Seitz's bill is far less draconian than one introduced by a group of the House's most conservative Republicans earlier this month.

It would, if passed, undo Ohio's early voting system. In fact, it would take the state back in time.

On Aug. 12, State Rep. Bill Dean, a Republican from Xenia, introduced House Bill 387, an "election integrity" bill which would turn the clock back on nearly everything that has been done over the past 16 years to make it easier to vote in Ohio.

Dean's bill has six co-sponsors, including Tom Brinkman of Mount Lookout.

HB 387 would take a meat ax to the early voting system. Consider this:

  • The bill would do away with drop boxes at boards of elections entirely.
  • It would chop the current 28-day early voting period, in place since 2015, to 13 days in 2022 and to six days after that.
  • It would bring back something that the legislature - Republicans and Democrats alike - did away with in 2005 – the requirement that voters provide an excuse such as illness or travel outside the state to cast an absentee ballot.
  • The bill would also ban the Secretary of State from mailing out absentee ballot applications to all Ohio voters, as has been the practice in elections in even-numbered years since 2012.

State Rep. Scott Wiggam of Wooster, one of the co-sponsors of HB 387, told Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler that he believes the 28-day period is far too long.
"There's all sorts of information that's coming out that may change voters' minds as an election approaches to that election day,'' Wiggam told Kasler. "I mean, what's the difference between 30 and 40 and 50? How about a year of early voting? How many days do you actually have to have in order to go vote?"

It would, as co-sponsor Brinkman told the USA Today Ohio News Network, "eliminate some of that fraud that is potentially happening in the system."

The operative word there is "potentially."

The fact of the matter is that voter fraud in Ohio – where no county has its vote tallying system connected to the Internet and where there is a paper back-up for every scanned ballot – is exceedingly rare. About as close to non-existent as you can get.

According to Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican who is supporting HB 294, there were only 13 cases of non-citizens who cast ballots in the 2020 presidential election in Ohio, along with another 104 who apparently were registered illegally. All were referred to the Ohio attorney general for further investigation.

By the way, 13 out of 5.794 million votes cast works out to .0002%.

Not much of a crime wave, is it? A stolen election, some say. Well, it sure wasn’t stolen in Ohio. In fact, it wasn't stolen at all.

State Rep. Catherine Ingram, a Democrat from Cincinnati, told me that the Republican talk of trying to prevent voter fraud is a ruse.

"Fraud, what fraud? Even Frank LaRose says it is almost non-existent in Ohio," she tells me.

"What the Republicans are really talking about is turning back the clock to a day before there was easy voter access. This is the reality: The more people who vote, the worse Republicans do. Simple as that."

Democrats may not have the numbers to stop the GOP in the Ohio legislature, but the Ohio Democratic Party will fight any attempt to rollback voter access, said party spokesman Matthew Keyes.

"As Republican politicians in Columbus stumble all over themselves to introduce one harmful anti-voter bill after another, Ohio voters are left paying the price," Keyes said. "GOP politicians seem to be scared of facing accountability at the voting booth, especially after their party leaders led the biggest public corruption scandal in state history (with House Bill 6). But Ohio Democrats will make sure voters know what's at stake and fight any efforts that attack the right to vote in our state."

Seitz, too, believes HB 387 is a bridge too far. The horse was let out of the barn in 2005 when the legislature voted for "no-fault" absentee balloting after a 2004 high-turnout presidential election in Ohio that saw incredibly long lines at the polling places on Election Day, with many voters spending the bulk of the day standing in line to vote. It was a hot mess.

Seitz told me he believes his vote for "no-fault" absentee balloting was the worst he has made in his 20 years in the Ohio General Assembly.

"There are a lot of Republicans whose attitude is that it is called Election Day, not Election Month; and I really don't disagree," Seitz said. "But this early voting system is entrenched now. It's too late to take it back."

Seitz said there is a segment of the Democratic left "who would like to have their ballots served with breakfast in bed" and Republicans on the right who want to go back to the days before early voting.

"I like to think of my bill as a middle ground," Seitz said.

HB 387, Seitz said, "makes my bill look very reasonable."

And that is where the GOP sleight-of-hand may well come into play.

Seitz said he believes HB 387 has no chance of passing. There seems to be little enthusiasm for that bill, except possibly among the sponsor and six co-sponsors.

Consider this:

HB 387, the draconian measure, was introduced on Aug. 12. Two weeks later, it has yet to be assigned to a committee for hearings. That is very unusual.

On the other hand, the Seitz bill was introduced May 6. By May 11, it was referred to the House Government Oversight Committee. By May 20, the Government Oversight Committee was holding a hearing on HB 294.

Seems to me that the only purpose of HB 387 is to die on the vine, but not until it makes HB 294 seen like a reasonable alternative.

Seems to me that would help Seitz's bill sail through the legislature.

And it seems to me that the incredibly antediluvian HB 387 could give some political cover to LaRose, a supporter of HB 294 who is running for re-election next year with a primary challenger – former State Rep. John Adams of Shelby County who is coming at him from the Trumpist right.

Something tells me that HB 387 is more show business than legislative business.
Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.